Filmmaker Greg Williams’ has been in recovery since he was 17. His groundbreaking documentary, The Anonymous People, highlights the importance of sharing recovery stories in order to decrease stigma and inspire more people to get help. We talked to Greg about the film (which will have its New York City premier next week) and what anonymity really means.
Phoenix House: What was your motivation behind making this film? Obviously recovery advocacy is very important to you, but what was the tipping point that inspired you to make a documentary?
Greg Williams: My personal recovery experience was my motivation first and foremost. I became addicted to drugs in my adolescence, had some near-death experiences, tore my family apart, and became a person I didn’t want to be. I was fortunate enough to get into treatment, and that was where I began my recovery. I started connecting with other newly sober young people, and that gave me the idea that I could use my personal experiences to help others. Meanwhile I was going to all these funerals for friends who had died of this illness, and I would watch people whispering to one another that the parents must have done something wrong to deserve this. This public shaming infuriated me and I felt the need to tell the real story.
PH: In the film, actress Kristen Johnson says that “shame and secrecy are just as deadly as the disease itself.” How did you reach the decision to open up about your own addiction, and how has that honesty helped your recovery?
GW: Part of my journey to make this film was that I didn’t talk about my recovery for the first five years—partly out of fear of discrimination, but also because I didn’t think I was “allowed” to. I was confused about what anonymity meant. Around three years into my recovery a reporter wrote a nice article about me and my family, but the first line of the article read: “Greg W., who didn’t want to use his last name.” I had a mentor at the time who asked me why I told my story to the reporter. I said it was because I was proud of my recovery. And she said, “Well if I’m a person in the general public who doesn’t understand anonymity and I read about someone who didn’t want to disclose his full name, I don’t see pride. I see shame.” It took some training, but I realized that I could put a positive name and face on recovery without violating traditions of anonymity. I could let other people know that recovery was possible, and that I was living proof.
PH: What about folks who do choose to remain anonymous in their recovery? Do you think anonymity works for some people, or do you think everyone has an obligation to share their story and reduce stigma?
GW: This is not about “people should.” This is about “people can.” It’s about normalizing the recovery identity in mainstream culture. We want to give people permission to come out and talk about their recovery if they so choose—to say “Hey, here are other people who have done this before you and maybe together we can change the system.” There are 23.5 million Americans in recovery, and we don’t need all of them to be “out.” Look at the LGBT rights movement; not every gay person is an activist, but all of them have felt the repercussions of stigma. People who “come out” about their recovery can make the lifestyle look attractive. Someone who’s still using drugs might look at them and think, “I’d like to be a part of that, maybe I should get clean too. How do I get into recovery?”
PH: You mention media coverage as exacerbating the problem of celebrity addiction. Case in point: the current coverage of Lamar Odom’s addiction “breaking up” his marriage with Khloe Kardashian. What role can the media play in decreasing the stigma surrounding addiction?
GW: It’s all about balancing the story. We saw this happen, maybe for the first time in mainstream media, when Mathew Perry was on the cover of People Magazine for nothing other than being in recovery. It wasn’t about ratings, it wasn’t about sensationalizing addiction. It was, “Here’s a guy five or six years in recovery, let’s put him on the cover because he’s doing great.” Telling both sides of the story is crucial, but so many people never get both sides told. The media covers the car accidents, the overdoses, the deaths—but when someone celebrates five years or ten years in recovery, we don’t hear about it. Tragedy and disaster are easy stories, but we’ve told the easy story for years. It’s time to tell the whole story instead of focusing on the problem and ignoring the solution.
PH: The film says, “It isn’t parents failing young people. It’s the health system.” Why is this, and how can the health system to a better job of serving those with addiction?
GW: We’re currently dealing with a square peg in a round hole: using a crisis-oriented criminal justice approach to address a chronic health problem. That’s the infrastructure that we’ve built in this country. We are almost decent at initiating recovery and getting people into treatment (at least for those who can access it) but we do a terrible job with ongoing recovery support. With cancer, we assertively monitor people for five years after they go into remission. Addiction, on the other hand, is deemed “acutely stabilized” in just five to 28 days—90 if you’re really lucky. Then we pat people on the back, toss them out, and say, “Well, good job! You probably should go to some meetings! I don’t know where they are, but good luck!” And then we blame them when they don’t stay sober?
PH: The film shows early advocate Marty Mann saying that alcoholics belong in treatment, not in jail—and this was almost 70 years ago. Why do you think we are still incarcerating addicted people today and how can we change this?
GW: It’s complex, but shame is a key factor and anonymity plays into that. We were making strong progress in the late 1960s and early 1970s with congressional hearings and the Hughes Act, which recognized alcoholism as a major health problem and established the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. But then in the late 1970s we went largely silent as a community because the War on Drugs grabbed headlines and began to demonize addicted people in a sensational, fear-mongering way. It was a huge cultural setback; if you were an addicted in the 80s, 90s, or 2000s, you lived with a great deal of societal shame as a result. We still haven’t dug ourselves out of that, but we’re starting to. I hope that when people see my film and share it with others, it will start a conversation that doesn’t stop—a conversation that decreases shame and stigma and talks about truly addressing the most important public health crisis of our time. This is a conversation we must have if we want to help the next generation escape this epidemic.
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